The diplomatic saga to get Turkey on board with the U.S.-led campaign against Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) appears to be inching toward a tacit understanding, with both sides saying they are prepared for joint airstrikes against the group's home base in Syria. But mixed messages this week about the extent of their cooperation show just how far apart the two allies are from a strategic, big-picture alignment on the Syrian crisis — underlining doubts about their mission's very coherence.
For a few hours on Monday, it appeared the United States and Turkey had reached a “comprehensive” deal to finally secure critical Turkish involvement in the campaign against ISIL, or so said Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu. Just hours later, however, the White House promptly denied that was the case. As reporters scrambled for answers on Tuesday, Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook clarified at a press conference that, in fact, talks had concluded with some sort of agreement, but he couldn’t provide any specifics. Asked whether the deal would sideline Syrian Kurds or establish a “safe zone” along Turkey’s border — Ankara’s longstanding demands — Cook deflected: “What’s under discussion is the overall fight against ISIL.”
Turkey took its first steps to enter that fight several weeks ago, granting the U.S. permission to launch airstrikes against ISIL from strategically located bases in its south and even launching a handful of its own. This marked a dramatic reversal for Ankara, which originally tolerated the transit of ISIL recruits and smuggling across its borders into Syria in a bid to combat Bashar al-Assad’s regime. But the decision only came after ISIL killed 33 Kurds in a suicide bombing in the Turkish town of Suruc, and the Kurdistan Worker's Party (PKK) insurgency, which has long blamed Turkey for dragging its feet as ISIL stormed Kurdish towns in Syria and Iraq, carried out a series of attacks against Turkish soldiers in retribution. Ankara, meanwhile, appears to have used the anti-ISIL campaign taking off from its air bases as cover to launch some 400 parallel strikes against the PKK, all with Washington's approval.
Analysts say Turkey has come to regret its initial ISIL policy, but it has yet to agree with the U.S. and its Gulf allies on what a joint military operation would entail and even what its goals should be. Cavusoglu told Reuters in an interview on Tuesday that Ankara still considers removing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad from power to be “essential” — a position Barack Obama’s administration has backed away from since ISIL emerged as a greater threat to regional instability. He also reiterated that the Syrian Kurdish YPG militias, who have been the most effective ground forces against ISIL in Syria but are allied with the PKK, cannot be part of an emboldened anti-ISIL campaign, “unless they change their policies radically.”
“The main problems are still there,” said Gonul Tol, the director of the Middle East Institute’s Center for Turkish Studies. “Turkey is framing the issue as if they have solved all the problems with the U.S., and they’re on the same page. But they still don’t see eye to eye.”
In particular, Turkish officials have been insisting for months that the U.S. had agreed to carve out a safe haven, an approximately 60-mile deep strip of land along its border in Syria that would serve as a buffer to ISIL and a breathing space for anti-ISIL, anti-Assad forces. Once secured, it might also allow some of Turkey’s 2 million Syrian refugees to return home. Washington, however, has preferred to call it an “ISIL-free zone,” a semantic distinction that telegraphs reservations about escalating U.S. military intervention and possible direct conflict with Syrian forces.
Central to Turkish demands for this area would be a no-fly zone, which setting up "comprehensively would require a suppression of Assad’s anti-aircraft missile capabilities,” said Ege Seckin, an analyst at IHS, a consultancy. “It would require a mission stretching all the way into the depths of regime-controlled territory, which is obviously something the U.S. is loath to undertake.”
Then there is the question of who will partner airstrikes on the ground, if not the Kurds. Washington has begun to train and arm a smattering of “moderate” anti-regime soldiers in Turkey, but the first group released into Syria was tiny — just 54 men — and it was promptly attacked by Al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate, the Nusra Front. That incident was also an embarrassment for Turkey, which was thought to have influence over Nusra Front and certain other hard-line factions. Also, Ankara has praised a force of some 5,000 Syrian Turkmen fighters, but analysts say they are untrained and as yet unproven on the battlefield.
“I think there is a detachment from the realities on the ground on behalf of both Turkey and the U.S.,” Seckin said. “It should be very clear to the U.S. at this point that Turkey will never allow Kurdish forces to openly help the operation clear ISIL from the border. And from the Turks’ perspective, I think they’re very aware the U.S. will never acquiesce to having radical Islamic elements like Nusra do the job.”
That leaves only the YPG, and their political faction, the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), who have consolidated control over pockets of northern Syria and in doing so, stoked fears in Ankara that Kurdish separatism could creep across the border. Turkish rhetoric has been particularly sharp in the wake of recent PKK attacks on Turkish soldiers, with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's embattled Justice and Development Party (AKP) considering it a political necessity to publicly denounce armed Kurdish factions, analysts said.
But their calculations may be more pragmatic behind the scenes, however, especially since the PYD has been providing the intelligence for airstrikes against ISIL. Some analysts have even suggested Turkey could try to drive a wedge between the PKK and PYD, to make working with the latter, which has earned a reputation as a reliable, pro-Western bulwark against ISIL, palatable. While both organizations coalesce around the dominant personality of PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan, and even share fighters, “at the end of the day, the PKK are Kurdish Turks and the PYD are Syrian,” said Soner Cagaptay, a Turkey analyst at the Washington Institute. So the Syrian Kurds may see strategic benefit in distancing themselves — if only slightly — from their hard-line sister party.
On other demands, including the safe zone, analysts suspect Ankara may ultimately come to heel. That happened earlier this year in Kobane, a Syrian Kurdish town just along the Turkish border that would have been conquered by ISIL had the U.S. not delivered arms to Kurdish militias in the eleventh hour. Turkey, which controlled the border, eventually relented and let those weapons through. In this case, too, “The U.S. will never agree to what Turkey wants,” said Cagaptay. “So the question is, at what point will Turkey grudgingly come on board?”